Perfect Sound Forever

Frederic Rzewski

Photo © Jerome de Perlinghi, courtesy of Other Minds

Interview by Daniel Varela
(March 2003)

Sometimes recognized as a virtuoso pianist, sometimes as a composer in his own right, Frederic Rzewski is one of the most consistent, creative personalities of the last few decades. He is capable of exhilarating energy, performing his long piano compositions as to develop insightful ideas about the role of artists in a broader socio-historical context 1. The Sixties took Rzewski to Europe performing Stockhausen, Boulez, Cage, Bussotti, Kagel and many other composers as well as co-founding the influential electronic ensemble MEV with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. Around 1969, he composed "Les Moutons de Panurge," a radical experiment with additive melodic formulas labeled after as minimalism 2. A few years after this piece, Rzewski balanced minimal accented cells with political texts in the remarkable "Attica" and "Coming Together" (both 1972) 3. During the seventies, he was deeply concerned about problems relating to crises in musical theory, sociopolitical questions and aesthetic language. Regarding all of this, Rzewski's music has coped with many tensions and, in his own words, "it seemed to me (that) there was no reason why the most difficult and complex formal structures could not be expressed in a form which could not be understood by a wide variety of listeners" 4, something for which he was criticized for 5. But heterogeneity has been the landmark of Rzewski's work, a point clearly stated by new music authority Kyle Gann about an early American period - eclectic, bristling with Ivesian quotation and collage, tinged with folk song and minimalism - and his recent European works: enigmatic, dense in their motivic logic, often even 12-tone 6.

In the seventies, his work included the remarkable North American Ballads (1979) and his epic variations on El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido! (1975) 7, this last as an enormous example of political music in the most broader sense, putting Rzewski at the same tradition beside composers like Cornelius Cardew 8, Hans Werner Henze (9a,b), Hanns Eisler 10a,b,c, Kurt Weill 11 and Luigi Nono 12a,b. In this second group of works could fit other projects that he did during the '80's such as Antigone Legend (1982), based on Bertolt Brecht, The Triumph of Death (1987), about a play by Peter Weiss on the Auschwitz trial of 1964, and The Waves (1988) based on Shakespeare's sonnet sixty, all of which use different instrumental resources. In the last years, Frederic Rzewski has been focused on long works using piano and text resources like De Profundis (1992) "for a speaking pianist" in which performer recites selected passages from Oscar Wilde's letter to Lord Alfred Douglas during author's imprisonment in Reading. One of his most recent works is a mammoth three-and-a-half-hour "novel for piano" called The Road, including 64 movements "darted angularly, driven by small, reiterated motives"; they often lapsed into clusters and accompanying vocal sounds, but always with thoughtful calm rather than violence. Occasional programmatic moments (at one point, Rzewski blew a toy train whistle and rattled bells in a choo-choo rhythm) didn't do much to render the music's interval-based atonality less abstract. The work was supposed to evoke the experience of driving down a winding road; in reality, the movements (called "miles") suggested self-contained units, each with its own aphoristic logic" 6.

Frederic Rzewski gave a memorable concert in his only visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina during Festival Internacional Experimenta from October 2nd to 11th, 2000. This conversation took part the day after the concert in which he has performed some of his "piano novels" as soon as a delicate piece by Belgian Henri Pousseur ("Memoires d'Icare," 1994 in memoriam Karel Goeyvaerts) and an outstanding version of Cornelius Cardew's "We Sing for the Future" (1981) 13 just previous to its release on the New Albion label. A lot of intelligent, sensitive and powerful music was heard at the recital. Taking into account this fact, I preferred to talk not only about music but also about some ideas and concerns behind Rzewski's creative personality.

Q: With respect to musical and social concerns, you've mentioned Christian Wolff 14 many times, who is well known for his considerations on social practices and music. It seems there're connections between some of his work and yours. Could you comment about this?

My friendship with Christian evolves from our early days at Harvard. I met Christian in Darmstadt in 1956 (I was 18) and was an undergraduate and he was a graduate from Classics Department, so when I returned to Cambridge in fall in September, we got in touch and every since then, we have been very close. At that time, we were not working very much in the area of politics and I don't think that Christian had any particular political ideas at that time. Certainly in his music, he was beginning to see the direction he would take later on into the some kind of questions that interested us so much in the middle and late sixties, exploring the role which music could play in a broader social context 15a,b.

But you know in spite of all talk about these political composers of that time (i.e. Cardew), actually there's not so much you could put your finger on! And this is a piece of music history that has (questionable) political effects or political significance. All of this music I think, in spite of its desire to connect with a broad side of things (in fact, sometimes it's very serious commitment with certain ideas) remains in a very small world of "cognoscenti", very few examples about this... There's nothing to compare with works by Hanns Eisler I can think that any work from the sixties and seventies made by political composers really meant something to a large number of people as (much as) the improvisations of the Grateful Dead or the songs by Bob Dylan. That's not to say of course that (there) is something wrong about it, because a lot of music by Eisler is equally restricted to a very small number of people. So it's not the numbers that count.

Another of my very good friends is Sergio Ortega 16a,b, a Chilean composer which is also from our generation and could easily have developed in the way that Christian Wolff or Louis Andriessen 17a,b had in the world of contemporary concert music, even as an outsider hadn't been recognized for the conditions in his own country and propelled him. In his younger years, he was writing serial pieces and avant garde music like the rest of us, but when the Unidad Popular Movement 18a,b,c,d,e came into power, he was propelled into a situation in which he was commissioned to write songs for Unions 16b for instance- something which many of us would love to do but nobody never asked us! But they did ask then and this meant that his career took a different turn and of course when it did, it radicalized his positions even further. Now in a way, that has its negative consequences as well because, as an example, Sergio has been living in Paris during the last twenty-five years and he's a French citizen. He's the director of the Conservatory, The Ecole Musicale de Pantin just outside of Paris. He's written ten operas 19 but because he's known for his political songs, he's not recognized as a composer, especially by the French musical establishment. So he's completely isolated in terms of recognition as a composer (even as a French citizen). Of course it has a great deal to do with his Latin American origin. Latin or even North American composers are a kind of second or third grade of European musicians.

Q: And taking into account these points, is it possible to think of a chance for a social role for certain activities in contemporary and experimental music in an era of postmodern cultural relativism? What about the old idea of 'progress'? Or is new music more like a myriad of personal isolated activities?

It's a question of thinking about what happened in the world of music during the last 25 years. It's not so much about what the musicians are doing but how the structure of music industry was changed. In the last 25 years, the music industry has turned in one of the most concentrated, monopolistic industries in the world. You have basically three or four record companies who dominate the entire market. The industry made 40 billion dollars and it's moving quickly to areas that have nothing to do with music like digital television and things like that. Music companies are in a very strategic position to dominate these new sectors, so this has inevitable consequences, not only for the consumers but also for the producers of music and the musicians. So, the problem in this age of so-called 'communication' is that certain kinds of communication are becoming more difficult than ever.

Personally, I remain optimistic, I believe very strongly that live music, as opposed to recorded music, will continue to survive and recorded music will collapse. I think perhaps the 20th century will be regarded by future generations like the "recording century," which leads to confusion between a work of art and its industrial reproduction. In a way similar to the notion of the ancient Egyptians about life after death (a very strange idea), in the 20th Century there was the strange idea that it was possible to freeze the music into a piece of plastic which you could then buy it in a store. I think that we have had some kind of return to a more traditional view, namely that music is something that one does, not something that comes to you. It's some form of activity so I think that we'll find new forms of folk music, something that appears spontaneously.

One of the things that I'm personally interested in is writing- writing as opposed to recording, a form of projecting ideas potentially far into the future which is something that recordings cannot do. It's been said that recordings are forever and do not change, but maybe in the future, we will discover new means of recording. Today, we have CD ROMs and things like that but it seems that even they are very primitive means. They're primitive if we compare them to a simple page of music. One of the interesting things about writing is that it's possible to define structure very, very precisely and at the same time, by doing it in a such way, it is still capable of a multiplicity of interpretations all of which can be equally interesting. This is the reason to see Beethoven as a master. Beethoven could be interpreted in different many ways and we know that future generations will discuss how to play the "Hammerklavier" sonata.

This is the idea of writing and it's still at an early stage. It's by no means exhausted. Writing has only been around for 5000 years- that's not very much and I think that is still a mature discover to be made about the relationship between the brain and the hand and what happens in the act of writing in different parts of the brain for instance in short and long term memories and many of these things are not clearly understood. There's a great deal to be done within this area where recording is something necessary and I think that is much less interesting. On the other hand, there's a number of composers like John Zorn for instance, whose writing is really the recording. He goes around, plays a concert and it's basically that the people buy the record and I guess that is more the rule than its exception. There's a new book by Eric Hobsbawm about the subject. He's writing about the subject of the decadence of the visual arts in the 20th Century and distinguishing the differences between the visual arts and its reactions to the process of industrialization in a way which is different from music 20. I think this is a very interesting subject.

Q: Do you have any particular ideas about musicians like John Zorn regarding "cut and paste" aesthetics?

Well, it's music done twenty years ago, but it is interesting, what he was doing at that time. But I think that is very different from he is doing now and, by the way, those ideas were hardly influenced by Christian Wolff among other things 21a,b. Of course, they're mostly connected with and evolve from improvised music. Some of Christian's early pieces were very influential on improvising musicians in the late seventies or early eighties 22a,b- they picked some experimental scene from earlier decades and resources from the avant garde. There seem to be a lot of interesting work in that scene, something strongly connected with improvisation but also very structured. They have a lot of scores and notes and they're very influenced by people like Anthony Braxton for instance. So, a new scene appeared which is bring together some of these different traditions. Of course, many people tried to do that in sixties and seventies but it was so artificial. People came from classical traditions or from jazz and they might have been sympathetic to people working in the other side but they didn't have clear ideas. I do a lot of improvising but I also had a classically-trained background. My son will be thirteen in some weeks and he really has his feet in several musical traditions and his new generation and the people younger than him are producing a new kind of urban music which is equally based in jazz or European classical (music), in free improvisation and so forth. They like to listen tango, samba music, Italian, many different areas.

Q: Like the musicians in the Downtown New York scene?

I don't know about the downtown scene in NY right now... frankly, I'm rather skeptical that it exists. I think that it existed maybe fifteen years ago, but I'm not sure it still really exists now. People like John Zorn or Elliott Sharp are more that 40 years old! I go to NYC all the time but the impression is that in the last ten years, there has been little development and I'm afraid that the city maybe is coming to an end of a period. NY was a very lovely city for the arts in the '50's, '60's and '70's and maybe there was an extent of that in the early eighties but since then, I can't see very much evidence of a kind of anything new.

Of course, you can say the same thing about London or Paris as well. The character of the end of the last decade of 20th Century is a slow period in the arts in general! (laughs) And that's precisely the thing that (historian Eric) Hobsbawm is writing about, trying to explain. But it's not so easy to explain. I have my own personal theory about it, that the facts are closely related to the rise of visual and electronic media in the second half of the 20th Century. You must know Bruno Bettelheim's thoughts about the Uses of Enchantment 23 theory in the fairy tales: its important to the information to be communicated orally. And there's the experience of hearing the story told by the mother, the nurse and the father, calling the child's brains to develop the imagination as stories are told about Evil, the monster, the witch, the sorcerer, which can produce some images in the brain of what a monster or a sorcerer looks like. But in the second part of the 20th Century, with the increasing proliferation of films and television which invades the private home, children no longer have the possibility to develop their imaginary abilities because the images are projected onto their brains and the brain becomes a passive receiver of images, coming from electronic media. So in my opinion, this is this is why the artists at the end of the 20th Century are they way they are, because they've grown up watching television. It doesn't mean that you can save or limit the destructive influence of the media in a simplistic notion (though)...

Q: Back to the Sixties and regarding to social questions, could you comment the period around the Parma Manifesto 24? (question by Claudio Koremblit, Experimenta Festival Artistic Director)

It was written for the Festivale Internazionale di Teatro Universitario, which takes place every year in the University of Parma. There was an event organized by Jean Jacques Lebel in which Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), the Living Theater and other people took part as well. It was a kind of happening and this was in March 1968. We were all together at one festival at New Year's (1967) and we decided to do some collaboration. So we came for this event and that afternoon, I wrote these texts simply off the top of my head and in the evening, we did this happening, which consisted mostly in very free, improvised actions.

Lebel prompted the audience to take the theatre out into the streets. People from the establishment and the authorities looked at this place full of people and all smoking good hash and they got a little freaked and decided to close the event taking off the electricity. MEV was playing and suddenly, there was no sound! The lights were off and Jean Jacques decided to go to the streets and take the event directly into the city but the next day, the University was occupied by the students- the action against the artists had an inflammatory effect. The basic idea of the text - remember, that was 1968 - was that we are living in a time of very rapid transitions in which older models guiding behavior collapsed and were in crisis. So, there's very little time to construct new ones and it's necessary to find new forms for human relationships. Improvised music was a possible music to find these new things and it's necessary to discover new forms of spontaneity and possibly save the human species from self-destruction 25a,b.

I think that these are not finished ideas and today, we must to go further. I think that we must free the confidence that is necessary. When I see pictures of Israeli soldiers lying on the ground, covered of blood, I can't avoid asking myself why these soldiers do what they do. Or why the people of the other side do what they do. This is really necessary and I'm quite convinced that some kind of mature transformation of human behavior is absolutely necessary to save the species from self-destruction.

I think that Freud was right that it is a profound, perhaps innate, tendency of the species to destroy itself 26. You know, I'm a Gramscian 27a,b,c,d and I'm totally optimistic and I think that is better to recognize the worst areas that are a real danger and find some optimistic way to do things. Personally, I think that a world revolution is inevitable and even imminent but we cannot predict its form it would take- it could be new forms of fascism, or some kind of religious fundamentalism killing half of the females or making slaves out of the others. These things are something that it is a very real possibility for which we have to prepare ourselves.

But on the other hand, I'm very optimistic because human beings are basically cooperative rather than competitive. Human society has a rich development because it has cooperation and the present aspects for social organization based on competition are alterations on the norm. Eventually, the species will find its way back to more traditional forms of social organization which have provided efficacy, like village unions which have been around for ten thousand years and which still exists in half the world. I think that revolution does not consist - most of the Marxist movements in the 20th century faults - in changing the world, but I think that the revolution today must be seen in a new way that leaves the world alone and lets people do what they do without trying to make them better.

I think it's only a question of seeing how people interact on the street- you see that people have a role of how to behave to each other in a perfect reasonable way without money, without authority and without talking about it. I think that money, government and even language may disappear! These are not necessary and it's a question of doing it. It's something that is connected very easily. I think that it's possible to get rid off oppressive institutions that making life so difficult for everybody and deals out a lot of troubles (laughs). But this involves some kind of raising of consciousness so whether or not music could be made into some kind of role in this process is not clear. I don't think that there is any clear evidence to make some statement about this but I believe that in some kind of utopian society of the future, jazz improvisation might be see as an early experimental form of social practice, as a kind of primitive perception of things to happen later in political organization 25. And I think that is possible, but you know, people might feel as oppose to utopian ideal.


1) Zimmermann, W: Frederic Rzewski. Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Composers. Aesthetic Research Centre of Canada, Vancouver, BC. 1976.

2)"Les Moutons de Panurge." (1969) In: Michael Nyman: Experimental Music. Cage and beyond. London: Studio Vista, 1974. Electronic version available at

3) For an analysis of the pieces, Cope,D: 2000. New Directions in Music. 7th ed. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press. Original edition 1980. As an example in the Chapter "The New Experimentalism."

4) Rzewski,F: Liner notes to The People United Will Never Be Defeated! CD, 1990 hatArt 6066

5) Rockwell,J: Frederic Rzewski. "The Romantic Revival & The Dilemma of the Political Composer." In: All American Music. Alfred A.Knopf, New York, 1983.

6) Gann,K: "Roll Over, Liszt" (Frederic Rzewski retrospective). Village Voice, May 5, 1998 (Vol. XLIII No. 18, p. 76)

7) Johnson,T: "Frederic Rzewski: The People United." Village Voice, November 22, 1976. Reprinted in The Voice of New Music, Apollohuis, Eindhoven. 1989.

8) Anderson,V:. British Experimental Music: Cornelius Cardew and His Contemporaries. 1983: thesis, Experimental Music Catalogue, Leicester, UK. Facsimile of the original work from University of Redlands, California.

9a) Jungheinrich,HK: Im Laufe der Zeit. Kontinuität und Veränderung bei Hans Werner Henze. Schott Musik International, Mainz 2002

9b) VVAA: "Hans Werner Henze 70." Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 1996/ 4. Issue devoted to Henze of the german new music magazine.

10a) Grabs,M: A Rebel in Music. Kahn & Averill, 2000. Reprint of the original 1978 German edition.

10b) Betz,A: Hanns Eisler. Political Musician. Cambridge University Press, 1983. Reprint of the original 1976 German edition.

10c) Hanns Eisler, German composer, was investigated by the FBI from 1942 until his deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1948. In 1947, Eisler admitted, in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to joining the German Communist Party in 1926. Eisler is the brother of Gerhart Eisler, known Comintern Agent. These files are available at Freedom of Information Act web site at FOIA Homepage

11 ) Kowalke, Kim H., ed. A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

12a) Wright,D: Luigi Nono at ClassicalLink, 2002

12b) Metzger,HK - Riehn,R (eds.): Luigi Nono. Musik-Konzepte heft 20. Edition text+kritik, München, 1981.

13) We Sing for the Future CD, New Albion NA 116. New Albion Records

14) The definitive book about Christian Wolff with essays, interviews, composition notes, and a lot of references on his creative world is: Gronemeyer,G - Oehlschlägel,R (eds.): Christian Wolff. Cues: Writings and Conversations. MusikTexte, Köln, 1998.

15a) Zimmermann,W: "Christian Wolff." Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Composers. Aesthetic Research Centre of Canada, Vancouver, BC. 1976.

15b) Duckworth,W: "Christian Wolff." In: Talking Music. Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. Schirmer, New York, 1995.

16a) Sergio Ortegas profile in Spanish

16b) Ortega's song list with all the lyrics including classics like Venceremos! and El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!:

17a) Potter,K: "The Music of Louis Andriessen. Dialectical Double Dutch?" Contact #23, Winter 1981.

17b) Koopmans,R: "On Music and Politics. Activism of Five Dutch Composers." Key Notes #4 . 1976/ 2.

18a) Rolle,C: La "Nueva Canción Chilena," el proyecto cultural popular y la campaña presidencial y gobierno de Salvador Allende. Atas del III Congreso Latinoamericano de la Asociación Internacional para el Estudio de la Música Popular. (Chilean New Song, Popular Culture Project and Salvador Allende's Campaign and Government) Without publication date.

18b) Advis,L: "Raíz Folklórica, Historia y Características de la Nueva Canción Chilena." En, Clásicos de la Música Popular Chilena. Vol II, 1960-1973. SCD,Santiago de Chile,1998.

18c) García,JM: La Nueva Canción Chilena. Without publication date.

18d) Chile: Breve Imaginería política 1970 - 1973. Outstanding website about Chilean political period including Unidad Popular programs, photos, propaganda and New Song documents.

18e) Question & Answer: A Conversation With Horacio Salinas Of Inti Illimani,October 6, 1999. Center for Latin American Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

19) Pulgar,L: "Sergio Ortega: La Opera Tendrá Sorpresas." Diario La Tercera, July 26th,1998 (The Opera will be Surprised. Ortega interviewed on his stage works)

20) Hobsbawm,E: Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde. Thames & Hudson,1999. Another Hobsbawm work related to the historical period is Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, Random House, 1996. Hobsbawm profile entitled "The Lion of the Left" has written by Tim Adams ,Sunday January 21, 2001 in The Observer. Another interesting reference is Eric Hobsbawm (in converation with Antonio Polito), The New Century, London, Abacus, 2000, pp. 61-93.

21a) Lange,A: Liner notes to John Zorn's Cobra double CD. Hat Hut records, Switzerland. CD 2-6040. 1991 (originally recorded 1985/86)

21b) Lange,A: "Der Architekt der Spiele: Gespräch mit John Zorn über seine musikalischen Regelsysteme." Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 2/ 1991.

22a) Nyman,M: Experimental Music. Cage and Beyond. Schirmer, New York, 1974.

22b) Hamilton,A: "Change of the Century. Christian Wolff." The Wire 202, December 2000

23) Bettelheim, B: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Alfred A Knopf, Inc. New York. 1975.


25a) Rzewski F: "Little Bangs. Towards a nihilist theory of improvisation" (lecture delivered on March 31, 2000, in Frankfurt, Germany). Reprinted in German as "Theorie der Improvisation," MusikTexte 86/87. An excellent account of Rzewski's ideas on music practice and social behavioral models.

25b) Rzewski,F: "The Algebra of Everyday Life." In : Gronemeyer,G - Oehlschlägel,R (eds.): Christian Wolff. Cues: Writings and Conversations. MusikTexte, Köln, 1998.

26) Freud,S: Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). W.W.Norton, New York, 1989.

27a) Rosengarten,F: An Introduction to Gramsci's Life and Thought. February 2002 available at
27b)'s Antonio Gramsci's archives
27c) Fondazione Istituto Gramsci, Roma, Italia.
27d) Gramsci Links Archive

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